Caffeine: You Think It, You Feel It?

In The Music Man, Professor Harold Hill charmingly dupes the River City populace.

flute-webHe first takes their money for musical instruments and then purports to teach their kids how to play said instruments. . . .

by telling the kids to simply think of the notes . . . and then play them.

With Professor Hill’s “Think System,” musical instruction and practice are totally unnecessary! We laugh at this premise of course (what parent hasn’t suffered through years of costly lessons and painful practice?!). And yet—

Thought is powerful.

Professional musician Kirk Lundbeck (9/5/2006) defends Hill’s “Think System,” arguing that you use

visual imaging to “see” and “hear” in your minds eye what you are creating

—although when he says “a musician can ‘hear’ and even ‘see’ the notes to be played prior to making any audible sound,” we can assume that the person is a musician because she or he has already learned the notes and practiced the instrument.

Still, visualization is real and it’s powerful. As Lundbeck says,

Once I “see” and “hear” the note in my head I begin to play just what my mind has already heard.

Likewise in medical matters.

The placebo effect is well known, along with its rather evil cousin, the nocebo effect, wherein a person so strongly believes that a treatment will not work that it doesn’t, or so buys into the possible negative effects of a medicine that they experience those ill effects even if they haven’t actually been given that drug.

And this power of thought over physical reality extends to caffeine.

Researchers Eugene Chan and Sam Maglio (2019:65) say that because

there are many associations held about [tea and coffee] . . . such associations can likely have effects on cognition.

In fact, just walking past a coffee shop may be enough to increase our alertness and even change our decision making!

Thus, Chan and Maglio (2019) devised several experiments to test whether visualizing a cup of coffee or tea results in any physical effects such as a faster heart rate and greater focus.

  • They first looked at Westerners (coffee-dominant countries) vs Easterners (non-coffee-dominant or tea-dominant countries) and found that when Westerners visualize a cup of coffee, they do experience some of coffee’s effects. Easterners, however, show no such correlation.
  • They then found that people who more strongly associate coffee with increased alertness and attention (i.e., Westerners) also experience greater effects (including alertness; narrowed, more concrete, focus; and increased heart rate) from visualizing coffee.

coffee-webIn other words, if we believe that coffee invigorates our bodies and sharpens our minds, just thinking about it accomplishes some of that.

And this idea that coffee has a positive and energizing effect is shored up in Western countries by advertising, social media, television shows and movies, and so on.

But in Western countries, tea is thought of differently. Say “tea” and many of us might envision socializing, taking a break, ritual, femininity even.

However, habitual tea drinkers are well aware of the calm alertness that tea provides—the stimulating caffeine balanced by the amino acid, L-theanine. And for such people, there is some evidence that thinking about tea affects them physically and mentally. A 1953 study found that

the effects of tea on simple and complex reaction times were demonstrably faster after its ingestion [by habitual tea-drinkers] than among non-tea drinkers, despite the fact that the caffeine amount was identical. (Chan and Maglio 2019:66)

Still, Chan and Maglio’s study suggests that for Easterners—people from non-coffee-dominant or from tea-dominant countries—visualizing tea has no impact.

tea-webWhat is the reason?

Do Easterners have no expectations of tea, unlike coffee drinkers who anticipate, or even depend on, caffeine’s effects? Or did this study just not address the specific effects that Easterners experience?

Or, does Western culture put so much emphasis on coffee and its effects that people have unconsciously absorbed this mindset?

Or, is it just that coffee has more pronounced effects, and therefore has more impact when we think about it?

Studies of caffeine are complicated, with the stimulant having both psychological and physiological effects, as Chan and Maglio make clear in their report. Having focused on several specific indicators as a starting point, their study adds to work demonstrating how psychological meaning impacts our thought and behavior.

Interesting stuff to be sure, but it validates what—really—we already knew, right?

Because so often we do experience pretty much what we expect to experience. Whether the jolt from coffee or the measured alertness from tea, the outcome of a social gathering, the friendliness of the store, job satisfaction.

We envision it. And then we play it out, note by note.


–Chan, Eugene Y., and Sam J. Maglio, “Coffee cues elevate arousal and reduce level of construal,” Consciousness and Cognition 70(2019):57–69.
–Lundbeck, Kirk, “The think system,” Jay Friedman, September 5, 2006.

Related posts:
The Case for Caffeine
Why Doesn’t Tea Make Me Wired?
Caffeine in Tea: How Much Is in Your Brew?

4 thoughts on “Caffeine: You Think It, You Feel It?

  1. Dear Jill,

    I only wish you were right but…..sometimes it really doesn’t work.
    Yesterday, I was thinking about cleaning and organizing the house but having thought real hard most of the day, it never really happened. And I am a westerner, coffee drinking person. So please tell me why it didn’t work for me. Diane says it’s because I am too lazy. What say you?

    Have a great tea day.


    1. Hmmmm, maybe your visualization wasn’t specific enough. Or, did you think about coffee BEFORE thinking about the cleaning? That way, more energy would be generated for the cleaning/organizing visualization. This is exactly why research projects go only so far in explaining real-life situations. 🙂


  2. Interesting! I’m pretty sensitive to caffeine – a cup of tea too late in the afternoon can keep me awake for hours. But while coffee is seen as a stimulant, I don’t really see (never really heard people talk about) tea the same way. In fact, it’s more common that people drink tea because ‘coffee has too much caffeine’!


    1. I agree with you that many people drink (or switch to) tea for its lower caffeine levels. And yet I have heard many people say that, like you, a cup too late in the day keeps them awake. So I wonder why don’t we think of tea as the (measured) stimulant that it can be (not all teas, of course)? In the west, I wonder whether it’s a carryover from when tea/coffee first came to Europe and coffee ended up being more of a male drink (power, “take charge”) and tea more a women’s drink. But my understanding is that in Eastern countries, centuries ago, monks used tea as a way to stay awake and focused—and yet apparently people don’t visualize tea and feel any of that calm alertness. Fascinating stuff!

      Liked by 1 person

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